Cross-country news - 8/2/6
Torino Olympics 2006 - where are the British cross-country skiers?

The Turin 2006 Winter Olympics are about to start – but noticeable by their absence are the UK’s top cross-country skiers, Alan Eason and Simon Heard, whose Olympic ambitions have been denied them by tough British qualifying criteria.

According to Simon Heard, one of the UK’s top cross-country skiers and, like Alan Eason, a former winner of the UK 15k classic British Championships race, the qualifying standards set by the BOA are absurd.  ‘If the US set the same qualifying standards, only 3 out of 4 of their relay team would qualify.  In British cross-country we stand no chance’. When talking to cross-country skiers from other countries Simon has been met with disbelief at the high British standards.

Cross-country skiing is completely unsupported in the UK, meaning that UK cross-country skiers stand little chance of meeting these qualifying standards.  ‘In top level cross-country skiing we’re competing against teams with an army of support – wax technicians, team managers and large budgets for the best skis.  When we turn up to races we do our waxing ourselves, enter our own races, and during the year we have to plan our own season and training,’ says Heard, who supports himself financially, and survives the ski season on a shoestring.  'It is not widely understood how much of a difference good ski waxing makes in cross-country.  In alpine skiing it makes a small difference - in cross-country it can completely transform standings.'

Such tough conditions, and the lack of Olympic prospects, make cross-country skiing an uninviting proposition for aspiring elite athletes.  If it wasn’t for the expectation of the same tough qualifying criteria for Vancouver in 2010, Heard, 26, would almost certainly continue training for cross-country ski racing.  As it is, he plans to retire from competition after this season, and start training as a teacher in his home county of Devon.  ‘There simply isn’t any point in continuing if the situation remains as it is.’

Much the same frustration is shared by Alan Eason who, at 35, has spent the last 8 years training and racing cross-country skiing. 'Snowsports GB recently sent a letter stating that we need to be in the top 20 in a world cup race to go to the Olympics. Up until December they said that the target was the top 30. By the sounds of it they do not understand cross country skiing, and have just based there standard on Alpine.
There is no chance of ever getting in the top 30 - even to get 120 FIS points to get on the world cup is a great achievement.' Given the situation, Alan suspects junior cross-country skiers should abandon cross-country skiing and take up biathlon, which is governed by a separate and independent body, the British Biathlon Union, more likely to look out for their interests. He intends, however, to continue skiing and give his full support to the juniors coming up.

Nevertheless, such sentiments from the sport's two most successful skiers are a concern for the youth and junior athletes emerging from Snowsport GB’s hugely successful junior development squad.  Under the leadership of Angharad Evans, the squad has been hugely successful in competition against the best junior skiers in Norway, and at the British Championships in Ruhpolding.   Huntly in Aberdeenshire has achieved recognition as a centre of excellence in cross-country skiing, and its young stars have been attracting attention, recognition and most importantly results.

However the support for cross-country skiing simply doesn’t exist at the highest level.  Snowsport GB, which is nominally responsible for the development of competitive cross-country skiing in the UK, has reduced to zero its funding for the discipline.  Instead it focuses all of its efforts and resources on other disciplines.  And while cross-country skiing could really do with a voice to lobby the British Olympic Association (BOA) to ease its Olympic qualifying standards, Snowsport GB’s support has not been forthcoming.

Will cross-country skiing continue to be the Cinderella of British snowsport in the years to come?  We’ll have to see.  With any luck the efforts of our athletes will be noticed, but while nothing is done, the Olympic hopes and aspirations of our cross-country skiers may well be sidelined for the foreseeable future.

Iain Ballentine

PS I spent about 8 hours travelling with Simon in the back of his car, as we drove from the Army and TA Champs in France to the National Champs in Germany. Talking to him, and then subsequently to Alan Eason in Germany, made me realise what exceptional commitment it takes to ski and compete cross-country at the highest level. Surely these guys deserve to represent their country? The BOA wants to avoid 'embarassments' such as Eddie the Eagle, but how can you ever consider athletes like Alan and Simon, who have fought hard to reach the top of British cross-country skiing - one of the toughest sports, contested by so many of the toughest in the British army - embarassments?

The Olympic movement is about more than just medals and finishing in the top half of the field. We should rejoice that countries such as Ethiopia and Thailand put in entrants in cross-country skiing, not because they have any chance of winning, but because they are there, doing their best against the best in the world, putting in an appearance for their country. Alan and Simon are miles ahead of these athletes - which the BOA would no doubt consider embarassments - and would be allowed to go to the games under the qualifying criteria of many of the more mainstream snowsport countries, but the BOA won't countenance it. In my view the sport, and the spirit of competitiveness among nations, is the poorer for it.

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